At the time of writing this, I have been in Kenya for 72 days.
Contrary to popular belief, I am neither Kenyan nor do I have any roots in this country (well, I could be growing them). However, I have visited Kenya numerous times over the last few years on journalistic assignments, and I’m currently experimenting with what can best be described as a “soft move”.
Leaving London for Nairobi has been motivated by both professional (the authenticity of covering Africa from Africa) and personal (falling in love is a wonderful thing; some of us catch flights to catch feelings!) circumstances. However, this piece isn’t about the journeys I’ve been on over the last two months (you may read about it soon if you talk to me nicely).
I have visited Kenya four times in the last 12 months, three of those trips happening in the lead up to the August 2022 general election. As a journalist, I naturally ask a lot of questions of everyone I meet, and have thus spent a fair amount of time comparing how much changed between my trips, what stayed the same and what all these can potentially tell us about the future.
The First Coming
My trip to Kenya in November 2021 was my first since December 2019. This was due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the United Kingdom’s insistence on keeping Kenya on its red list (rich coming from the UK, considering it couldn’t give anyone lessons on how not to handle a pandemic).
At the time of my 2021 visit, Kenya was like other countries dealing with the consequences of the pandemic, which had affected individual livelihoods and the economy. When meeting people, be it the numerous cab drivers (cabs are my primary form of transport when in Nairobi), or business owners, acquaintances, friends or fellow journalists, one thing seemed clear, most people were uncertain about what would happen next.
Those who depended upon tourism were deeply concerned about how the country would recover when the pandemic was still playing out in the background and the infamous ‘silly season’, the reckless and chaotic pre-election phase, was also set to heat up.
Few gave opinions on the looming election itself – there was not much in the way of predictions in terms of potential candidates or winners. It was a tight race, they said. Instead, it all boiled down to a combination of curiosity and concern regarding the country’s future post-pandemic, coupled with pockets of dissatisfaction with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government (never mind that of the two top presidential contenders, one had been Kenyatta’s deputy for ten years, and the other was Kenyatta’s preferred successor.) At that we-aren’t-sure-whether-we-are-coming-or-going juncture, most conversations would end with “we just hope for the best.”
The Second Coming
My next trip to Kenya was in March 2022, and the election noise was a little louder.
There were those who suggested who their preferred candidates were, with both William Ruto and Raila Odinga coming up often, much as it largely seemed like Odinga would edge Ruto out.
Ultimately, some were sold on who they would vote for, others still contemplating their options. Then there were those, who simply put, were disinterested. At the time, I wondered if it was apathy, then soon realised that for many, the concerns remained very much what they were in November; putting food on the table, paying bills and worries about the high cost of living.
The camp of undecided voters was small, yet it was clear that they were open to being persuaded by either candidate. Running mate choices and possibly manifestos would contribute to their final decision. Amidst all of that, the one line echoing throughout was “We just hope for the best.”
The Third Coming
In the first week of June 2022, I landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport once again.
Looking around Nairobi, it was clear that election season was in full swing. Wherever one turned, there were billboards of politicians, posters plastered all over and exuberant boda bodas wearing fluorescent jackets bearing political messages urging people to vote for any particular candidate.
Billboards with the slogan “Baba na Martha” featured Odinga and his running mate Martha Karua (who could have become the country’s first woman Deputy President), while William Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua were pictured in front of a yellow background, wearing white shirts with sleeves rolled up.
What was fascinating to me was the sudden surge in people (particularly cab drivers) who said they would be voting for William Ruto, branding themselves as “part of the hustler nation”. It seemed that the hustler narrative had worked (including as a means – according to the cabbies – of spitting outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was Odinga’s patron). It wasn’t that Odinga didn’t have support, but those I met seemed to be his traditional diehards, not like Ruto’s many new converts who I was encountering. Odinga’s fans were certain he’d win this time round.
Then I came across another demographic, mostly young urbanites, who were choosing not to vote. One would be tempted to brand them apathetic, but in my reading, this was far from the case. For them, choosing not to vote was a political act, sending a message that “none of these candidates represent us.” With campaigns underway and with an air of uncertainty in the air, the refrain remained one. “We just hope for the best.”
The Fourth Coming
I returned to Kenya one month after the election. William Ruto had been sworn in as President, a result Odinga had rejected and challenged in the Supreme Court, only for it to be upheld. Once more, my conversations resumed. Much as some Odinga supporters were disappointed with the turn of events and Ruto’s voters were ecstatic to see their man in State House, there was a shared sense of pride for Kenya having held peaceful elections, and for the judiciary having been the final arbiter, much as not everyone, especially Odinga supporters, were happy with the verdict.
Now, weeks on, there is a worsening drought, with Ruto’s number two Rigathi Gachagua urging Kenyans to contribute towards the drought response (is that not what taxes are for?). Tied to this is the ballooning national debt, the high cost of living and now politics-as-usual is threatening to rear its head as Odinga and Ruto tussle over the removal or not of four Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Commissioners who disowned the final presidential results.
However, this is a new government.
Perhaps they need time? Promises were made. Surely, they will be kept?
Still, “We just hope for the best.”